NORTON, Kan. - Norton quarterback Kade Melvin and his senior teammates started to play football together in the fourth grade. They watched the Bluejays consistently deliver strong seasons under longtime coach Lucas Melvin, Kade's father.
Between 1995-2017, Norton posted just one losing record. The Bluejays had multiple falls where they produced a Division I player, a top-five ranking or had strong aspirations for a state title game berth.
However, a 2009 semifinal showing marked Norton's top finish.
In '16 and '17, Kade was a freshman and sophomore and helped the Bluejays to 7-4 and 7-3 records.
“Idolized the guys in front of me, just thinking like they are amazing, and great, and if they couldn't make it to state, I was like, 'How will my team get in there?,” he said.
Last season, the Bluejays had an inexperienced group and battled through injuries for a rare 4-5 mark. This fall, Norton capped a remarkable turnaround with a 10-8 last-second home win Friday in the Class 2A semifinals against top-ranked Hoisington at Travis Field.
Norton (9-3) moved into the state championship game for the first time in 30 years – and elicited a massive on-field postgame celebration. Norton will play the winner of Riley County/Nemaha Central, a contest that will occur Saturday.
“We put in the work, and it's just a great feeling knowing that we are up there with some of the best teams in Norton history,” Kade said.
Hoisington (11-1) had defeated Norton, 31-7, in district play. Cardinal senior running back Wyatt Pedigo had posted back-to-back 2,100-yard rushing seasons. Norton slightly tweaked its defense, and Pedigo finished with 21 carries for 100 yards and a touchdown. He had delivered 20 carries for 290 yards and four scores in the first Cardinal win.
“We knew we had to stop him,” coach Melvin said. “And we did. You don't do that. Nobody has ever done it in his career really, and what our guys did tonight defensively was all about heart and effort. Really proud of them. Tremendous player, tremendous team over there. It just was our night tonight.”
With 6.2 seconds left, senior Luke Wahlmeier kicked a 32-yard field goal from the left hashmark on a surface turned soggy from Friday morning's snow and freezing temperatures. All the points came in the fourth quarter.
“This is what you dream of when you start doing it,” coach Melvin, in his 23rd season at Norton and 13th as head coach, said. “It's awesome. But the main thing is, getting to do it with these guys. Obviously, I have been around them for a long time, so it's special.”
Hoisington elected not to burn a timeout before the attempt. Melvin has served as Wahlmeier's holder since the eighth grade, and Wahlmeier labeled the bond “a good connection.” He had no nerves before the kick. Wahlmeier had struggled from the hashmark last year, but improved his angle and follow through this summer at several camps. He was 3 of 4 on field goals in his career before Friday.
“Everything fell into place,” Wahlmeier said. “I had great protection, great snap, great hold. Everything was just perfect.”
Hoisington received the kickoff, and then ran two desperation plays. When the last pass fell incomplete, coach Melvin sprinted to Kade, and jumped into his son's arms with a bear hug. Then, junior wide receiver Jonah Ruder went to the Melvins and mentioned the preparation and hard work.
“We came together,” Ruder said. “We have been dreaming about this since we were kids, just put it together and got it done. That's all it took. Hard practice, doing our responsibilities, drilled the kick, made the blocks, made the catches, got it done. …Everyone saw us out here tonight, but it's really what happened behind the scenes that made it happened, and I just thank God for all that, for all the health.”
Senior lineman Alex Auker fell to the ground on the sideline, and lay motionless by himself. Senior defensive lineman Judson Wiltfong went straight to veteran assistant Tony Fiscus, a father figure and mentor, and embraced him.
“It's crazy,” Wiltfong said. “We have had so many great players in the history, and to finally just break through with this group, this team, it's amazing. It still hasn't really sank in yet.”
Coach Melvin,then briefly by himself, walked toward the sideline. A man known for his faith, Melvin pointed his hat twice to heaven. After the trophy presentation, the Melvin had its large family section on the field. Coach Melvin's daughter, Miah, a former Bluejay athlete, yelled: “We are going to state, baby!” Melvin hugged his teary-eyed wife, Angela. Melvin improved to 102-46.
“I just feel like God has really blessed our season this year after last year,” he said. “We had so many injuries, and we prayed, and prayed. There have been people that have been praying, just that we stay healthy, and we have. And God has been with us, man, and it has been awesome to see Him at work in the lives of these men and this community. It's really awesome.”
Entering the game, Pedigo, a University of North Dakota commit and the reigning Class 2A Sports in Kansas Offensive Player of the Year, had averaged 14.1 yards a carry this season.
The Cardinals' all-time leading rusher, Pedigo had just two contests in the last two years, both in '18, that he finished under seven yards a carry. In the first meeting, Norton had its defensive ends keep contain. This time, ends Wiltfong and junior Gavin Sproul kept contain. Kade Melvin and Ruder kept contain at outside linebacker.
“We pinched it more,” coach Melvin said. “We were going to clog up the middle, and make him try to get outside of us.”
Additionally, Norton bothered Hoisington with its size. Wiltfong is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and has added 30 pounds in the last year. Senior Dante Smith is 6-1, 295. Junior Christien Hawks stands at 6-5, 265.
“It was hard for us to get movement,” Hoisington coach Zach Baird said. “They have a really big defensive line, and it was hard for us to get to the second level. They were just really aggressive, and got off blocks.”
Hoisington continually started drives inside its own 20-yard line. In the second quarter, the Cardinals started at its 16-yard line. Senior quarterback Mason Haxton delivered a 67-yard run, though Ruder ran him down for a tackle. Norton stopped Hoisington at the Bluejay 10-yard line on a fourth down tackle from senior Tucker Pfannenstiel. Both Ruder and Pfannenstiel had suffered injuries last year.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Melvin delivered a 27-yard touchdown run down the right sideline. Wahlmeier's kick gave Norton a 7-0 lead. Melvin finished with 20 carries for 90 yards. He was 15 of 24 passing for 191 yards and two interceptions.
Hoisington then took nearly seven and a half minutes off the clock and scored on an 8-yard run from Pedigo with 4:17 remaining. Hoisington lined up to kick the extra point, but Norton was offsides. Hoisington then went for two, and Pedigo tallied the conversion run for an 8-7 lead.
“We believed this whole season,” Wiltfong said. “That's the kind of team we were, the fight all the way to the end. That's what our coaches have installed in us, and we've believed, we've bought into this program.”
Melvin made multiple highlight reel plays on Norton's final drive. On 3rd-and-12, he threw a 15-yard completion to senior Carter Jones. On 3rd-and-12, Melvin hit senior Brandon Vacura for a 19-yard pass.
“He has got more poise than I have got,” coach Melvin said.
On 4th-and-5, Kade found a seam and rushed seven yards for a first down at the Cardinal 31-yard line. On 2nd-and-17, he and Jones connected on a 17-yard pass. Three plays later, Wahlmeier delivered his memorable kick.
“We had to get it done,” Kade said. “It was something that it was necessary. It was without that, we wouldn't win the game, so I knew that we had to get it done, and I had to stay calm and collected during that whole drive.”